Sanity and spiritual sanity – masochism

Masochism and religious experience

“I saw an angel close by me, on my left side, in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see, unless very rarely […] He was not large, small of stature, and most beautiful […] I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

St. Teresa of Avila,

The sculpture by Bernini is clearly based upon Teresa’s vision of an angel stabbing her heart with a spear – this is a mystical vision, but there is a powerful masochism in her writing with hints of the sexual alongside the spiritual. Thomas Moore, a spiritual writer and psychotherapist noted that “her mystical swoon is hardly distinguishable from orgasmic rapture.”

Christianity includes a long history of masochism – the imprint is of Christ on the cross and the examples are of the thousands of martyrs where there is the voluntary acceptance of violence being imposed upon oneself for the greater glory. The masochistic desire of being the slave or the sacrifice stems from the very act of ‘humility’ that every Christian is encouraged to practice. Humility then becomes the means to deep union where the subjection of oneself is to a greater power.

For anyone who has struggled to free themselves from a powerful or dominant parent or abuser this is an uneasy form of spirituality. We pray to our Lord God and accept the dynamic of this relationship – but how to maintain a sense of love and mutuality rather than one where the dynamic becomes one of subjection and denial. The danger is that for the masochistically inclined the relationship involves one person becoming a totally assimilable object to the other – in other words a full-scale process of separation, misappropriation and conquest. The sense of self is subservient to the fantasy of God’s will – but interpreted through a masochistic screen of pain and pleasure intertwined. This draws on early infantile states of mind rather than a sense of spiritual sanity and loving acceptance of who one is.